The incredible story of Marco Polo's journey to the ends of the earth has for the last seven hundred years been beset by doubts as to its authenticity. Did this intrepid Venetian really trek across Asia minor as a teenager, explore the length and breadth of China as the ambassador of the ruthless dictator, Kublai Khan, and make his escape from almost certain death at the hands of Kublai Khan's successors? Robin Brown's book aims to get to the truth of Marco Polo's claims. Covering his early life, his extraordinary twenty-four-year Asian epic and his reception in Italy on his return, 'Marco Polo' places the intrepid Venetian in context, historically and geographically. What emerges confirms the truth of Polo's account. Polo, scholars now agree, opened vistas to the medieval mind and stirred the interest in exploration that prompted the age of the European ocean voyages. All who now enjoy the fruits of Marco Polo's incredible journey through Asia - whether in the form of spectacles, fireworks, pasta or any of the many products of the Silk Road - will find in Robin Brown's book a fascinating portrait of a man who made history happen by bringing about the meeting of East and West.
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The Incredible Journey
By Robin Brown
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Robin Brown
All rights reserved.
The Journey Out
I began my journey in Asia, in Lesser Armenia (Armenia is divided into Lesser and Greater.) The King here lives in Sebastos and is noted for his fairness and justice. Towns, forts and castles are numerous and there is an abundance of the luxuries of life as well as the necessities. Game, both birds and beasts, is numerous. But the air of this country is not particularly healthy and while in former times the people were regarded as good soldiers today they are, frankly, worthless.
On the coast is the busy port of Laiassus, frequented by merchants from Venice, Genoa and many other places. The trade here is in spices and medicinal plants of various sorts and they manufacture silk, wool and other quality cloths. People who intend to travel into the interior usually go via Laiassus.
Lesser Armenia is bordered to the south by what is called the 'Land of Promise' (now occupied by the Saracens), to the north by Karamania, a territory of Turkomans, and to the north-east by Kaisariah, Sevasta and a number of other cities all subjects of the Tartars. On the western side is the sea, all the way back to Christendom.
The inhabitants of Turkomania fall into three classes: Turkomans who worship Mahomet and are rather primitive and dull, dwelling in mountain places difficult to get to where there is good pasture for the cattle upon which they are dependent. There is an excellent breed of horse here, called Turki, and fine mules which are highly valued. Then you have the Greeks and Armenians who reside in the cities and fortified towns and earn their livings by manufacturing and commerce. Cities like Kogni, Kaisariah and Sevasta (where the late St Blaise achieved his martyrdom) make the best and most handsome carpets in the world, also silks of crimson and other exotic colours.
All pay homage to the Grand Khan, Kublai, Emperor of the Oriental Tartars who rules here through governors. I now want to move on to Greater Armenia, also known as Armenia Major, an extensive province entered via the city of Arzigan where they make a very fine cloth called bombazine and other curious fabrics. It is also the seat of an archbishop. Arzigan has the most excellent thermal baths to be found anywhere hereabouts. The other cities of any consequence are Argiron and Draziz.
The country is under the domination of the Tartars and in summer on account of the good cattle pasture, part of the army of the Eastern Tartars is billeted here. Then in winter, when the snow is too deep for horses to graze, the whole garrison decamps south.
There is a rich silver mine guarded by a castle called Paipurth on the road from Tresibond to Touris.
In the heart of Armenia stands an exceptionally large, high mountain upon which Noah's Ark is said to have finally rested and so is named 'The Mountain of the Ark'. It takes two days to walk round the base of the mountain and it is unscaleable as the snow leading to the summit never melts, indeed increases with each successive fall.
In the valleys, however, melting snow waters the ground and produces such lush grass that cattle from all around find rich grazing here.
Bordering on Armenia Major to the south are the districts of Mosul and Maredin, of which more later. To the north you have Zorzania bordering the Caspian where there is a fountain of oil that gushes so prolifically as to provide loads for many camels. It is used to treat skin conditions both in humans and animals rather than as a food and it is also good for burning. People come from miles around for the oil and everyone uses it in their lamps.
Zorzania (Georgia) is ruled by a king called David Melik which in our language means David the King. One part of the country is subject to the Tartars, the other, thanks to strong fortresses, has remained in the possession of local princes. It is located between two seas, the Euxine and, to the east, the Abaku (Caspian.) The Abaku, 2,800 miles in circumference, is landlocked. The sea boasts several islands graced with handsome towns and castles some of which are inhabited by refugees from the conquests of the Grand Tartar when he laid waste Persia. Others are not even cultivated. There are also refugees sheltering in the mountains.
The Abaku produces an abundance of fish, particularly salmon and sturgeon at the mouths of rivers as well as other large fish. The wood hereabouts is box.
I was told that in ancient times the kings of this country were born with the mark of the eagle on their right shoulder, suggesting perhaps that they were a branch of the imperial family of Constantinople who have the Roman eagle among their insignia.
The people are sturdy, bold sailors, expert archers and make fairly good soldiers. They are Christians, followers of the Greek Church and they wear their hair short like Western priests.
There is a famous narrow pass here which is said to have put paid to Alexander the Great's northern advances. Along the full 4 miles of its length it is washed by the sea on one side and flanked by high mountains and forests on the other. Just a few men could defend it against the whole world. Angered by his failure, Alexander built a great wall at the entrance to the pass and fortified it with towers to prevent people on the other side from molesting him. So strong is this fortification that the pass is known as the Gate of Iron, and it is commonly held that Alexander was thus able to enclose the Tartars between two mountains. This is incorrect. There were no Tartars here then, just a race called the Cumani who came later under Tartar dominance, and a mixture of other tribes.
In this province today there are many towns and castles and the people live well. The country produces great quantities of silk and they also manufacture silk cloth interwoven with gold.
There are huge vultures here of a species called avigi.
In the main the people here earn their living by trade and working on the land and the mountainous nature of the country with its narrow, strong valleys has prevented the Tartars from conquering it completely.
A miraculous event is said to occur annually at the convent of monks dedicated to St Lunardo. On the border where the church is situated there is a large salt water lake, Lake Geluchalat, where the fish never make an appearance until the first day of Lent! From then until Easter eve they swarm in great abundance whereupon they disappear completely for the rest of the year.
Into the aforementioned Sea of Abaku, which is surrounded by mountains, four great rivers, the Herdil, the Geimon, the Kur and the Araz as well as many others discharge. Genoese merchants have recently begun to navigate the Abaku, bringing out with them a handsome kind of silk called ghellie.
Zorzania has a fine, well-fortified city, Teflis, home to both Armenians and Christians as well as a few Mahometans and Jews. The manufacture of silks and many other articles goes on here. I have described only a few of the principal cities in this part of the world, indeed only those where something special goes on. There are many more, but I want to move on to the less well-known countries of the south and east.
The large province of Mosul, on the western banks of the River Tigris is home to Mahometans who are called Arabians and Nestorian, Jacobite and Armenian Christians. They have their own patriarch, Jacolit, who consecrates his own archbishops, bishops and abbots. Nestorian missionaries are sent from here to India, Cairo, Baghdad, and to all the haunts of Christianity in the same way as the Pope of the Church of Rome spreads his faith.
Cloths of gold and silk called muslin are produced in Mosul and the merchants are called 'Mossuline'. They also trade large quantities of spices and medicinal herbs from here to other countries.
In the mountain areas there is a race of people called Kurds some of whom are Mahometans others Nestorian and Jacobite Christians. They are an unprincipled people who make a living robbing merchants. Cotton is grown in great abundance in the towns of Mus and Maredin from which they prepare a cloth called boccasini as well as many other fabrics. Everyone here is subject to the rule of the Tartars.
Baghdad [Baldach] is a huge place formerly the residence of the Caliph of all the Saracens, just as the Pope is to the Christians. A great river, the Tigris, runs through it and is used by the merchants to transport goods inland from the Sea of India also known as the Persian Gulf. The voyage can take up to seventeen days, the river being so windy.
Ships bound from Baghdad to the port of Kisi, from where they go to sea, pass the city of Basrah on the south-east side of the Shat al Arab about halfway between the point where the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers converge at the Persian Gulf.
They grow the best dates in the world around here.
Baghdad is famous for its silks wrought with gold, damask, and carpets ornamented with the figures of birds and beasts. Almost all the pearls we get in Europe are first brought here for the process of boring. It's also a centre for the study of Islamic law, magic, physics, astronomy, geomancy and physiognomy.
Baghdad is certainly the largest and noblest city in this part of the world.
The Caliph of Baghdad, who is rumoured to have stored away greater treasures than any other king, came to a very sticky and miserable end.
This was the time when the Tartar princes were starting to push outwards from their Mongol homelands. Four brothers, of whom the eldest, Mangu, reigned, were competing in this territorial expansion.
First they subdued Cathay and the districts around it, but this nowhere near satisfied them, indeed they dreamed of a universal empire – of dividing the world between the four of them!
It was agreed that one of the brothers, Ulua, should go south, another east and that the other two would take on anyone remaining.
Ulua assembled a huge army that swept all before it until, in 1255, it fell upon Baghdad. Baghdad was, however, a strong city with a prodigious population and Ulua elected to take the place by cunning strategy rather than by siege.
His army consisted of one hundred thousand Tartar horsemen as well as infantry, but to deceive the enemy Ulua split them, posting one division behind Baghdad, the other in a wood while he advanced boldly with the third to within a short distance of the city gates.
The strategy worked. The Caliph made light of the force he saw ranged before him and, trusting in what he thought was Islamic superiority, marched out of the city with his guard, convinced he could destroy the enemy.
Ulua pretended to retreat drawing the Caliph's forces into the wood where his second division was concealed. The third division then closed from the rear. The army of the Caliph was surrounded and broken, he himself made prisoner, and the city surrendered.
Ulua entered the city where, to his amazement he found a tower brim full of gold. He called the Caliph before him, accused him of avarice and of jeopardising Baghdad by not spending the gold on an effective army, and locked him up in the tower. But he was given nothing to eat or drink. And so, surrounded by his gold, the Caliph's miserable existence was soon over.
Which was little more than this Caliph deserved. Since his accession in 1225 he had worked tirelessly and brutally to convert the Christians in his territory to Islam, killing those who refused to disavow their faith. He continually mocked the Christian scriptures until one day his learned men pointed out a claim they had found in these gospels, the one which says 'If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed ye shall say unto this mountain: Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall move'. Gleefully the Caliph latched on to what he saw as a ludicrous boast that a Christian's faith could move mountains, and he called a meeting of the numerous Jacobite and Nestorian Christians of Baghdad (Nestorians are a branch of the Mother Church which does not believe in the divinity of Jesus). There he insisted that they confess on pain of death that they believed this scriptural claim.
They did so, of course.
'So be it,' said the Caliph. 'Prove it. And if you can't find anyone in the land who possesses so small a portion of faith as to be equal to a grain of mustard and can't move this mountain, I shall be justified in regarding you as wicked reprobates and a people without a worthwhile faith.' Then he gave them ten days in which either to move the mountain or to embrace Islam. Otherwise they could expect the cruellest deaths imaginable.
The Christians well knew the Caliph's ruthless disposition (and that he had his eyes on their property) and they quite rightly feared for their lives. But confident of divine intervention, they embarked upon a regime of intensive, endless prayer. Every individual, young and old, prostrated themselves night and day and tearfully begged the Lord to save them.
After eight days relief came in the form of a very mysterious divine revelation. A Christian bishop, known for his exemplary life, had a dream in which he was told to seek out a certain one-eyed shoemaker. This shoemaker would, by divine grace, be able to move the mountain.
When they found the shoemaker he at first didn't want to know, claiming he had not lived a life that could command that much divine grace. But eventually, when he realised how desperate the Christians were, he agreed to try.
As it turned out, this shoemaker was in fact a very pious fellow who regularly attended Christian mass and the other divine offices, observed the fasts, and did much charitable work. He was also well known for an incident involving a beautiful young woman in his shop. The voluptuous creature was being fitted for a pair of shoes when she accidentally exposed a part of her leg causing the shoemaker an instant hard-on!
Appalled at himself, the shoemaker dismissed the beauty from his shop and castigated himself with the Lord's words: 'If thine eye offend thee pluck it out and cast it from thee; for it is better to enter the kingdom of heaven with one eye than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.' And he took his cobbler's knife and gouged out his right eye. Now that's piety for you!
When the Caliph's deadline ran out the Christians held a service first thing in the morning then trudged in sober procession, headed by a cross, to the plain on which the mountain stood. The Caliph was there too, attended by a large number of his guard who knew they would soon be putting the Christians to death if they failed to move the mountain.
The Christians brought out the pious cobbler who knelt before the cross, prayed hard, and cried out in a loud voice: 'In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I command thee, Oh Mountain, to remove thyself.'
And it did! Moreover, the countryside all around trembled in a most alarming manner frightening the wits out of the Caliph and his cronies, indeed they were stupefied. It's said that thereafter the Caliph secretly embraced Christianity, wearing a cross beneath his garments. It was found on him after his death and as a result he was not buried in the tomb of his predecessors.
And from that day on, Baghdad's Christians have continued to celebrate the anniversary of the day when the mountain moved.
Let us now move on to the country of Iraq and the large and noble city of Tauris which, of the many cities and forts in the province, is the most densely populated.
The people of Tauris support themselves by commerce and manufacturing and the various kinds of silk produced here, some of them interwoven with gold, fetch high prices. Tauris is well placed for trade with India, Baghdad, Mosul and Cremessor (Hormuz), and merchants from these places as well as Europe come here to trade. You can get all the precious stones and pearls you want here.
The merchants obviously are rich but the ordinary people quite poor. They are made up of a great mixture of nations and sects: Nestorians, Armenians, Jacobites, Georgians, Persians and the followers of Mahomet, known as Taurisians.
Each of these groups has its own distinctive language.
The city is surrounded by delightful gardens producing the finest of fruits.
I found the Mahometans an unprincipled and treacherous lot who believe their faith allows them to keep the goods stolen or plundered from those of other faiths. Theft in these circumstances is no crime, indeed those of their faith who suffer death or injury at the hands of Christians are considered martyrs. Fortunately they are constrained by the powers of the Grand Khan who now governs them otherwise there would be many more outrages.
You should know that these beliefs are common to all the Saracens. For example, when they are at the point of death their priests attend them and ask whether they believe that Mahomet was the true Apostle of God. If they answer in the affirmative their salvation is assured. As a result of these assurances of absolution the Mahometans have succeeded in converting a lot of the Tartars – who are also very taken with the idea of being relieved of the responsibility for crimes!
We'll move on now to Persia, a journey of twelve days, but first let me tell you of a monastery near Tauris which takes its name from the Holy Saint, Barsarmo, and is a very religious place. The abbot and the many monks dress like Carmelites. To keep themselves busy they weave woollen girdles which are placed on St Barsarmo's altar during divine service. Then when they make the rounds soliciting alms they present these girdles to friends and persons of importance. The girdles are much sought after, being reportedly very good against rheumatism.
Excerpted from Marco Polo by Robin Brown. Copyright © 2011 Robin Brown. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Map showing Marco Polo's Journeys,
General Introduction: Marco Millione,
The Journey Out,
Lord of Lords,
The Journey Home,